UWA professor uncovers historic racial struggles

Published 11:54 am Thursday, May 27, 2010

LIVINSTON – Few Alabamians would know that the 1901 constitution has been under attack since its adoption and even before. Black Alabamians—the primary targets of the 1901 constitution—brought the first real challenges to it, dragging it before state and federal courts as early as 1902 in an effort to preserve their voting rights. UWA history professor R. Volney “Rob” Riser has uncovered black Alabamians’ remarkable fight against the 1901 constitution as part of his new book, “Defying Disfranchisement: Black Voting Rights Activism in the Jim Crow South, 1890-1908,” published by the Louisiana State University Press.

The most important test-case challenges of southern disfranchisement originated in Montgomery in 1902, courtesy of the Colored Men’s Suffrage Association of Alabama. One of those cases—Giles v. Harris (1903)—became the landmark decision of the disfranchisement era. Decried as a “second Dred Scott,” Giles v. Harris had a far greater effect upon the nation than had news of Plessy v. Ferguson seven years earlier and, in legal terms, was arguably far more consequential. As Riser shows, these were only one part of a broader wave of black voting rights activism in the disfranchisement era.

“This book challenges what we think we know about the Jim Crow South and about the roots of civil rights activism,” said Riser, UWA assistant professor of history and Department of History and Social Sciences co-chair. “Black, Republican and poor white voters all were targets of the southern disfranchisers, and they all fought back against disfranchisement—or at least tried to fight back.

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“Voting is the primary insignia of American citizenship, and those men who faced disfranchisement or who had already been disfranchised battled doggedly to preserve or reclaim their voting rights. They lost the battle, and we know what horrors ensued as a result,” he continued.

“In overlooking the fight those men waged, historians have missed a whole world of very early civil rights activism, one that existed decades before what we think of as the beginning of the civil rights movement,” said Riser, who holds two bachelor’s degrees from Florida State University and both a master’s degree and doctorate from the University of Alabama. “I’m very excited to see this book finished and feel very fortunate that I’m the one who got to bring this amazing story to the forefront.”

Dr. Mary Frances Berry, University of Pennsylvania professor and former chairperson of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, characterizes “Defying Disfranchisement” as “a major work of historical reclamation.”

Dr. Michael Perman, University of Illinois-Chicago professor and a leading scholar of the post bellum Southern political history, describes it as “thorough and authoritative.”